Suggested listening:

"Blue" by the Jayhawks
"Welcome to Struggleville" by the Vigilantes of Love

The Bad Touch

Michael Walker

There is a town on the California coast. By the standards of its sprawling neighbor to the south, it is a small town, although in another part of the country it would be considered a large town or even a small city. Perception depends so greatly upon perspective.

The docks are not as busy as they used to be, but the airport is thriving. The community is surrounded by beautiful scenery; mountains are only a short drive away. It has a few rich people, a larger number of poor, and the bulk of the populace falls somewhere between those two poles.

In many ways, it is an altogether unremarkable town, but two features guarantee its uniqueness. First is a remarkably well maintained sewer system containing many more miles of large-gauge pipe than seems necessary for a municipality of this size. Most of the citizens do not realize this.

The second characteristic is also little known and that is a boon to the citizenry, for if they truly understood how special their town was, most of them would never sleep again. Their sleepy little burgh sits atop an entrance to Hell. Welcome to Sunnydale. May all your dreams come true. Your nightmares certainly will.


"Rip Torn."

Xander Harris rolled his eyes in disgust. "Will, you always pick Rip Torn."

Willow Rosenberg smiled and wiggled her eyebrows. "Because it's a cool name."

Xander shook his head. "It's not that cool. Besides, what cool it did have has been polished off by your constant usage."

Willow made an exasperated face. "Okay, you big baby. Dash Mihok."

Xander nodded. "Excellent choice. Pervasive yet obscure."

"Oh, for God's sake, could you just get on with it?" Cordelia Chase snapped her compact shut and deposited it in her purse. "This game is strictly for the stupid anyway. Acting like it's some sort of Mensa test just extends the arc of your patheticness."

Willow said. "Your turn."

A small, secretive grin rested lightly upon Xander's face. Willow rolled her eyes. Xander took his time saying the name. "Jensen Daggett."

Willow frowned. "Who?"

Xander's grin became wider. "Jensen Daggett. Played Jonathan Silverman's girlfriend Charlie McCarthy on The Single Guy. Also Scott Bakula's love interest in Major League: Back To The Minors."

"Okay," Willow said, "that is the coolest name in show business. I would like to say that your knowledge of pop culture has passed from thorough through obsessive and into the truly deranged." She stood up.

"Hey hey hey." Xander waved his hands. "You're leaving after only seven rounds? Why?"

"I have something to do," Willow said.


"A thing. I have a thing, a thing I have to do." Willow nodded and strolled away. Xander stared after her, his hands at half-mast.

"Wait," he said in a weak voice. "The game's not over."

Cordelia stood up. "I'm afraid it is." She looped her hand around his bicep. "Let's see if we can't think of something to make you feel better. I know. If you have cable, how many times could you watch Matlock in a day?"

Xander looked at her, eyes narrowed. "Are you asking how many time I could watch it, or how many times it's on? 'Cause those are two very different numbers."


Buffy Summers frowned, pulling her lower lip out and spoiling her profile as she marched through the door of the Espresso Pump and slouched into a seat at the table.

"Is your neck bothering you?" Willow asked.

"No, the neck is fine, but the next person to make a hickey joke draws back a bloody stump."

"Oh." Willow blinked. "Well, that's good to know." Her fingers plucked at the straps of her backpack lying on the table.

Buffy hunched forward and rested her elbows on the table. "Will, is there something you want to talk to me about?"

Willow swallowed. "Oh, well, it's just... I kind of... I heard that Thanksgiving at your house was really nice."

Buffy smiled. "If they ever make beating around the bush an Olympic sport, you're a shoo-in for a medal. Just spit it out."

Willow took a deep breath and spread her hands out on the table. "What's up with you and Angel?" A huge nervous grin broke across her face. "Yeah, there, I did it, just like I wanted to. Wasn't even that hard."

Buffy leaned back. The smile drained from her face, leaving it a motionless gray mask. She looked down at her hands. "Why are you asking me this?"

Willow nodded, still hyped from her assertiveness breakthrough. "Buffy, he got us together the other night. He came to my house asking for help." She bit her lower lip. "We've all accepted that he's back, but what does that mean?"

"Why does it have to mean anything?" Buffy's voice was hoarse.

Willow took a couple of deep breaths to psych herself up. "Buffy, he didn't come back from a trip across Europe. He came back from-" She looked around and leaned forward, lowering her voice "-hell."

"You know, Will, I know that. I live with that, because I sent him there."

"But you didn't bring him back."

"What?" Buffy's voice was sharp and Willow flinched. It took a moment for her to gather her confidence and continue.

"I said you didn't bring him back." Willow's took on that slightly distressed, slightly excited look that the Slayer knew so well. "I've been studying... stuff, and you don't just get out of hell. It's not like there's a gate that's left unlocked. Something brought him back. Don't you wonder why?"

"No, I don't." Buffy looked up at her friend and Willow felt a sharp pain in her heart as she saw tears in the Slayer's eyes. "I had nightmares every time I closed my eyes, and just when I was finally, finally starting to deal, he came back and now he twists the knife every chance he gets."

"You came back too." The words surprised Willow as they popped out of her mouth.


"You went away, and you came back. He went away and he came back." Willow shook her head. "It's got to mean something, Buffy."

"Yeah, it means it's never over."

"Are you saying you don't feel anything for him anymore?" Willow blurted out the question. Buffy stared at her best friend, a stare that gave Willow the uncomfortable feeling that the Slayer was reading the redhead's thoughts off the inside of her skull.

"Do I feel anything for him? Do you even realize how inadequate that question is?" Buffy pushed away from the table. "I appreciate your concern, I really do. And I'm aware that when it comes to Angel, you've been more understanding than Xander-of course, Attila the Hun with hemorrhoids would be more understanding than Xander."

"What if it's all Brownian motion?" Willow threw out the first thing that came to mind.

"If it's what?"

"Brownian motion. The idea that all objects are constantly in motion, even when they appear to be at rest. It may look like you're just sitting there, but all your molecules are vibrating. What if you and Angel are vibrating toward each other?"

"Okay, Will, I've got to go. You might want to go home and lie down because you're starting to make the kind of sense that isn't. Your brain is overheating."

"Buffyyyyyyyy." The look on Willow's face was a look often seen in pet stores, usually on the face of the last cocker spaniel puppy and directed toward the parents of a small boy who wanted to spend his birthday money. It was enough to make the Slayer hesitate.

Buffy looked away, then gave Willow the stare again. "Did you get a subscription to Soap Opera Digest? Why is this a deal now?"

Willow bit her lip again. "Buffy, I know this hurts, but I want to say one last thing." She stood up and hoisted her backpack. "It hurts him too. And I think that each of you is making the pain worse by being so stubborn." She took two steps and turned back to the Slayer. "He came to me to help you. You can't ignore that." She walked out of the café, leaving Buffy open-mouthed and staring.


Rupert Giles peeled away the dressing covering Buffy's neck wound. "It's looking better," he said as he examined the lacerations. "I'm certainly no medical expert, but I'd say that within a week you'll be as good as new."

"Fat chance," Buffy said. "I'll never be that again."

Giles frowned as he tossed the soiled gauze into a wastebasket. "Is something wrong?" He took clean gauze and medical tape from a first-aid kit.

Buffy licked her lips. "Giles, could I ask you a question?"

The librarian used precise strokes to clip the pieces of tape to a uniform length. "I am a Watcher, learned in mystic lore and charged with your training and counsel. I believe that answering questions falls under that rubric."

"Okay, not sure what that meant, but it sounded like someone related to RuPaul." Buffy nodded.

Giles smiled as he arranged the tape on his desk. "It means you can ask me a question." He took a gauze pad and placed over the scabbed puncture marks on her neck. "Hold that there."

Buffy placed her fingers to her neck as Giles picked up a length of tape. "What's the deal with Angel?"

Giles' fingers trembled as he attempted to affix the tape, which folded back on itself in a snarl. "Damn," he muttered. "What do you mean?"

Buffy's eyes slid sideways to look at him. "Are you okay? Did I hit a nerve?"

Giles rubbed his forehead. "Why... why on earth would you think that?"

Buffy gave him a look. "Because you look like I hit a nerve."

Giles took a deep breath and forced his hands to his sides. "Perhaps you could be more specific."

"You're major knowledge guy, and with Gerard here I thought you might have discussed the issue." Buffy tried to keep her voice bland and impersonal.

"We did." Giles picked up another piece of tape and turned to her neck. "We formed several hypotheses, none of which can be proven."

"Do you have any idea how or why he's back?"

"We could only guess as to how, since it's never happened before." Giles pressed the tape against her skin. "I have no clue as to why."

Buffy kept her voice steady. "So, it could be for some reason?"

Giles stepped back. "I suppose. It's problematic at best to try and decipher the purposes of the universe. I prefer to concentrate on the situation at hand." He spoke in short, clipped tones.

Buffy licked her lips. "Are you mad at me?"

Giles looked stunned. "Angry at you? Why would you think that?"

The Slayer shrugged. "I don't know.... Might be the vaguely pissed-off look on your face."

Giles ducked his head and rubbed his forehead. "Buffy, when Angel came to our rescue, my feelings were... ambivalent at best. I was glad to receive any help, but I was not..." Giles took off his glasses and looked up, perhaps counting the roof beams. "I wasn't prepared for the... more negative reactions I experienced."

Buffy looked puzzled, then realization and dismay spread across her face. "Oh, Giles, I'm so sorry. I hadn't even thought about Ms. Calendar." Her hand flew to her mouth. "And I'm sorry for saying that."

Giles nodded. "Yes, that was one thing that came to mind." The fingers of his left hand massaged the right in an unconscious gesture. Buffy did not miss it.

"Giles, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have brought it up." She slipped off the desk. "I should go."

He stopped her. "No. It is painful, but it must be brought into the open. I have been remiss in my duties. I have turned a blind eye to this situation. I have done so because of my own feelings, which is something a Watcher should never do."

Buffy gazed at him for a moment, her eyes taking in the loosened tie, the spiky hair, the carelessly rolled shirtsleeves, and the gentle expression in his eyes. "I'm so sorry," she said. "I never even thought about how this might be affecting you. Can you forgive me?"

Giles shook his head. "No need to ask. We all tend to put our own problems at the center of the world, and you've more right to that than most." He pursed his lips. "And given the part Angel has played in your life thus far, I don't believe it's far-fetched to assume that he has returned for some purpose." He chose his next words carefully. "It would be dangerous, however, to simply presume that purpose to be good."

Buffy blew out a breath, lifting her bangs off her forehead. "When you start using that many modifiers, it's never of the good."

Giles ducked his head. "I suppose I do begin to sound like a barrister."

"Wait, I know this one." Buffy raised her hand. "The barrister is the one that actually talks in court, right?"

"Yes, the barrister is the one who actually talks in court." Giles smiled briefly in spite of himself. "Buffy, are you thinking of... re-establishing contact with Angel?"

"Willow thinks I should. Unless that was a really fancy-pants euphemism for doin' it, in which case, no, definitely not, how could you even think that." Buffy tilted her head forward and glared at him.

"I wasn't joking." Giles' voice was sober. "I'll leave that decision up to you. But if you decide to see him, be careful. Try and do so on neutral ground, preferably with your friends around you."

Buffy made a puzzled face. "Why all the movie of the week stuff?"

Giles touched his upper lip with a forefinger. "Buffy, you yourself have mentioned that he seems distant, almost detached. He... The place that he... It would change a person."

"I know. I'm familiar with that sort of change." She headed for the door.

"Buffy." Giles stepped forward, his hand out. "Please don't think I'm belittling your experience, but it would be a mistake to compare your ordeal to his. I'm sure that what you went through was trying, but it doesn't begin to resemble his torments."

Buffy looked at her Watcher, a ghost of a bitter smile touching her lips. "I wouldn't be so sure about that."


"Tell me about this curse," Mr. Trick said.

Delilah consulted her notes. "One of our independents discovered an ancient Babylonian document that made a direct reference to a ritual to be used in the unmaking of the object."

Trick looked annoyed. "Damn, does there always have to be another complication?" He tugged at the ring in his left ear. "At least this Slayer situation will be resolved soon."

"Yes, about that." Mr. Quisling's eyebrows pulled together and his lips pursed. "All the arrangements have been made, but I wonder if I might ask a question?"

Trick cast a languid look over his shoulder. "If you never ask, how will you learn?"

"I don't want to give the impression that I doubt the efficacy of your plan, or that I consider myself any sort of--"

"Quisling, just ask the question."

"Sorry. I'm just having difficulty understanding the purpose of this strategy. It seems unnecessarily complex and I'm not sure how it alleviates our predicament."

Trick smiled, looking like a tickled cobra. "Seems like it would be easier to just kill one or both of them, is that your point?" Quisling hesitated, then inclined his head in the direction of his mentor. Trick stroked his own cheek with a forefinger. "Quisling, if we kill the Slayer, what will happen?"

Quisling frowned. "Well, I... Another Slayer would be called."

"Correct. Another Slayer, one who would be a complete enigma to us. Everything about her would be unfamiliar-her fighting style, her personality, her capabilities, all unknown. All we've done is exchange a known opponent for an unknown, which is never sound strategy."

Quisling tried to follow the train of thought. "So what we're hoping to do is...?"

Trick shrugged. "We won't have to fight either of them anymore. Plus there'll be no new Slayer to deal with. We can concentrate on fulfilling our contract."

Quisling shook his head. "You seem so sure."

Trick's laughter was a short harsh bark of curdled mirth. "Always know your opponent, Quisling. Once you do that, you can predict what they'll do every time."


The clacking sound of the library doors caused Giles to look up. Lindsay Maeda stood just inside the door.

"Is anything wrong?" Giles asked, getting to his feet.

"What? No, no." Lindsay shook her head. "Faith's out, so I decided to take a walk." She gestured toward the doors behind her. "I saw the lights on so I invited myself in."

"It's a pleasant night for a walk." Giles stuck his hands in his pockets. "That's a lovely coat."

"Yeah." Lindsay ran a gloved hand over the lapel of her black wool overcoat. "It doesn't get as cold here as it does in Providence, but it's still chilly after dark. Listen," she said, jerking a thumb over her shoulder, "would you like to get something to eat?"

"I'm afraid I'm rather busy here. I thought I would eat after I got home."

"Oh. Well, could you use a hand?" Lindsay pointed at the table behind him. Giles glanced at the open books and hesitated. "Thank you for offering," he said, "but this is dreadfully dusty stuff. It's really just a personal interest."

"Oh." Lindsay looked down at her hands. "Well, then I ... guess I'll be going."

"Yes, well, enjoy your walk." Giles lifted a hand as she left. As soon as she was gone he sat down and pulled a volume to him. A yellow pad was filled with closely spaced, crabbed handwriting. He had been here since school ended three hours ago and he wasn't sure if he had learned anything worthwhile.

It was an article of faith with Rupert Giles that the Watchers Council was motivated by a desire to do good. Granted, there were unseemly incidents in the past, and dark periods when those benevolent intentions were more notable for their absence, but he had never doubted the organization's essential rectitude. His very being rebelled against Gerard Roland's assertion that rituals were being tampered with, yet he could not dismiss the claims out of hand. He turned to his constant comfort, research. He would decipher the rites, ferret out any anomalies, and document historic variations.

That had been his plan. Instead, he was finding that the actual dogma and practice of the Council was much slippier than the official version. In the years preceding Buffy's arrival in Sunnydale, Giles had whiled away the time by amassing a substantial personal library. He had combed antique bookstores, flea markets and estate sales, concentrating on volumes with some connection to the Council. His vacations were spent on the Continent and he was on the mailing list of some Scottish book dealers of dubious legality. Substantial portions of his collection had remained unread-the diaries, memoirs, and personal histories mostly. These were the tomes he read tonight, and in the disagreements and things left unsaid an unsavory idea was growing. Perhaps Gerard was right.


Lindsay walked with her head down. The night air wasn't really cool enough for the coat. She'd put it on because it was her favorite winter coat and this was the time of year when she was supposed to wear it. Back home it would be really cold, frosty, not warm enough for shirtsleeves during the day and crisp at night. There might even be snow for Christmas at her parents' house, with the roast turkey and the big spruce tree. But there would be none of that in Sunnydale. Instead, Christmas was going to be a patched-together shindig at the ValleyView. It would still probably be the best Christmas Faith had ever experienced, and that was really heartbreaking.

Lindsay looked around at the unfamiliar landscape, at the plastic Santas placed beneath palm trees, and felt very alone and far from home. When the Watchers Council had contacted her, it all seemed so noble. Then she had seen Faith's desperate home life and almost before they were introduced they were heading cross-country after a vampire. They were on a mythic quest, two knights out to banish evil. The quest had crash-landed here at the end of America, in a cheap motel, far away from anyone she knew, in the middle of a situation that grew more confusing every day. The Watchers might not be allies after all, Faith's emotional and psychic needs were even greater than she'd imagined, and Mr. Giles, whom she had hoped would be a mentor, someone to help her accelerate her learning curve, had become more distant than empathy at a Limp Bizkit show.

Lindsay Maeda felt very, very alone. She wanted to go home. Absorbed in her funk, she failed to notice the shadows keeping pace with her. Her feet beat a staccato tattoo on the sidewalk as they slipped through the dark.


"They've got her." Delilah flipped the cell phone closed.

"Good." Trick rolled his head around, loosening his neck. "Let's get this party started."